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‘Because we do not suck’: How the St. Paul Port Authority became one of the biggest players in Twin Cities development

A Q&A with outgoing St. Paul Port Authority President Louis Jambois.

Louis Jambois: "What’s going on in Lowertown has been nothing short of inspirational, especially for someone who has been hanging around downtown St. Paul for the last 40 years."
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

For a public agency that has tried to keep a low profile for many years, the St. Paul Port Authority has spent a lot of time in the headlines lately.

From its role in repurposing a former 3M headquarters to its attempts to clear the way for a proposed Major League Soccer stadium, the port staff has been in the middle of some of the most high-profile deals in the metro.

Formed in 1932, the port authority manages four shipping terminals, leases 12.5 million square feet of office and manufacturing space, and helps arrange financing for business expansion. It has also overseen the cleanup of 2.1 square miles of polluted industrial land, which it then resold for development.

In October, port authority President Louis Jambois announced that he would retire in early 2016. As the port’s board conducts an executive search, the staff continues work on big projects, including the renovation of the former Macy’s department store downtown and the redevelopment of the former Midway ballpark.

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Jambois, 62, grew up in Wisconsin before moving to Minnesota as a sophomore in high school. After earning a bachelor’s degree in park and recreation management from Minnesota State University-Mankato, Jambois (pronounced Jam-boys) worked in various positions in state and local government before taking over the port authority in 2008.

MinnPost recently sat down with Jambois in his downtown St. Paul office to talk about his tenure and the role of the authority in city, regional and state economic development.

MinnPost: You know what an elevator speech is right? You have only the length of an elevator ride to tell someone about yourself — presuming, of course, that a Minnesotan would talk to a stranger on an elevator.

Louis Jambois: First, I talk to people in elevators. It’s fun. I say, “My name is Louie Jambois, I’m the president of the St. Paul Port Authority and the port authority exists to improve people’s lives. Our mission is to create quality job opportunities, to enhance St. Paul’s tax base and to foster sustainable development. We do that through financial products and through financial products and redevelopment.”

MP: How did you come to find yourself running this show?

LJ: It was a long and circuitous route. I am 62 years old. I showed up here at the age of 55. I started my career with the state of Minnesota, moved to the city of Prior Lake for a short period of time, came back to the state of Minnesota. In total, I did 30 years at the state DEED [Department of Employment and Economic Development] and its various predecessor agencies. I was in DEED community and economic development finance that entire time. I held a variety of jobs, but I was eventually a senior level manager in the department. I left DEED is 2004 to become the executive director of Metro Cities. I was that organization’s executive director until 2008, when I came to the St. Paul Port Authority.

I knew the port and the port knew me from my DEED days. I was one of the folks who helped create the contamination cleanup program in the early 1990s and the state’s redevelopment program in the late 1990s. The port authority was a great beneficiary of those programs. The programs were created to do exactly what the port authority needed to do, which was to purchase property that no one else wanted, to demolish the obsolete and dilapidated structures that were there, to clean up the ever-present underlying contamination and then to sell those properties to new businesses for job creation and tax-base generation and sustainability. So that’s how I ended up here.

MP: You came into the job at a pretty rough time for the authority. What did you find when you got here in 2008, and how did you respond?

LJ: It was a tough time nationally and locally and economically. The port authority itself was in very good shape. My predecessor, Ken Johnson, had been the president of this organization for 18 years. What he had created was an extremely robust redevelopment entity. When he had started 18 years earlier, it was an organization that had deep financial problems and he worked tirelessly to achieve two things. One was to resolve those financial problems but the second was to repurpose the port authority to do what St. Paul and core cities everywhere need to do, which is to reinvest, reinvigorate, revitalize areas of the city that had been neglected for too long. So when I showed up I inherited a really high-quality staff and really important mission. My job in the last seven years was to not screw that up.

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MP: Did you really order up coffee mugs that read, “We do not suck?”

LJ: I did not order them, but they did show up. It’s a long story. We were in the throes of creating a new program at the port authority in about 2010 and we thought we could do it — in fact we knew we could do it extremely well. We had a couple of people in that were just challenging us on, “How are you going to do this and how are your going to do that and how are you going to do the other thing?” We patiently went through how we were going to do all of that and the final question was, “What makes you think you can actually do this?” And in a moment of perhaps lack of discipline, I finally said, “It is because we do not suck.” That was kind of how that came about.

MP: And someone thought that would be a fun little office …

LJ: It became our unofficial tagline.

MP: What would you say — and I’m going to hold you to “single” here — is the top single accomplishment during your tenure?

LJ: I think it is probably reaffirming the importance of having a robust economic development organization like the St. Paul Authority to do the important work that needs to be done to keep our core cities vital.

MP: And that was not common knowledge?

LJ: No, and that’s a really good question. Part of the Port Authority’s personality — and it dates back to the days of financial problems when people came to the port whether we wanted them to or not to find out how things were going. Part of the port’s personality was to maintain a very low profile. And I understand that, it made perfect sense given what the port authority was facing. But as the port authority was working its way out of those problems, we hadn’t done very much to get out in the community and talk about the value of what it is that the port authority had done and what it was going to be doing in the future. So we transitioned in the last seven years from as quiet and low profile as possible to a we need to get out and explain to people what we do, how we do it and why it’s important to them that we do this work. 

MP: … and the main disappointment?

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LJ: Shoot, I don’t think I’ve got one disappointment. That might sound like I’m not being forthright, but this has been a really fulfilling and gratifying job. There’s a lot of neat stuff about this place. I know what the port authority’s challenges are but you probably have that question.

MP: Why don’t you go ahead with that then?

LJ: I think the biggest challenge facing the port authority for the next seven to 10 years, should my successor hang around as long as I’ve been around, the biggest challenge for that person will be hiring staff. The port authority has been around for a long time. It has developed and retained a real high-level staff but if you just look at the demographics alone the port will probably experience 70 percent turnover in the next president’s tenure. So hiring good staff who understand the economic development world in the public domain and the economic development world in the context that St. Paul plays in a broader regional and state context will be a significant challenge.

MP: When Mayor Chris Coleman asked you to take on the Macy’s project, who do you think was crazier: him for asking or you for saying yes?

LJ: Me for saying yes. He rightfully — as did many business leaders — encouraged us to take on Macy’s and for all the same reasons and good reasons. We’ve got really wonderful vitality in the events district from St. Peter Street into W. 7th. What’s going on in Lowertown has been nothing short of inspirational, especially for someone who has been hanging around downtown St. Paul for the last 40 years. It’s the middle of downtown that has been the quietest. And Macy’s in emblematic of that. It’s an iconic building that we were afraid would do nothing to add to the vitality and might, in fact, go the other way. It it stayed very quiet it might be a detriment to the revitalization and more energy associated with downtown St. Paul. So the last thing we wanted — the mayor, the business leaders, even us at the port authority — was to see someone buy that building for a song and convert the whole thing to parking, which was what we were quite certain the marketplace was going to do. If that had happened, the facade that you see today you’d still be seeing that 30 years from now. The building wouldn’t look or behave any differently. Given all the other work going on in and around downtown, that would be a force to slow down that work.

We bought it. We bought it for less than a lot of smart people thought we would pay. The fun part was, we knew what we could actually buy the building for — that was the good news. The bad news is we found ourselves as the owner of the building. But things are moving in the right direction there as well.

MP: What role is the port playing is securing property for a proposed Major League Soccer stadium in St. Paul? And how is that work progressing?

LJ: We are working on behalf of the city to secure a ground lease from Metro Transit that we can then sublease to the Minnesota United ownership group so they can build their stadium. It is a four-party agreement; I don’t know if you guys are familiar with land agreements, but usually they are two-party agreements. There’s a buyer and a seller or an owner and a tenant or lessee. Those can be challenging enough. In this case it’s a four-party agreement: there’s the team, there is the city with St. Paul Port Authority as the agent for the city, there is Metro Transit and then Metro Transit has to answer on that site to the Federal Transit Administration.

All four parties have to agree that a land transaction works in their best interest for a deal to get consummated. We’re getting there. If it were easy it wouldn’t be any fun.

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MP: Will there still be a working riverfront on the river in St. Paul as far into the future as you can see?

LJ: Yes, there will, and I appreciate that question. A working river is part of St. Paul’s history, it is part of St. Paul’s economic diversification. It is an important function for the regional economy and the state economy. It provides good quality jobs at good wages. It provides an opportunity for business. With the closure of the upper St. Anthony Falls Locks, we’ve got a lot of pressure. Eastern Europe was fed a few years ago with Midwestern grain. Eastern Europe suffered a major drought and the Midwestern grain got to Eastern Europe down the Mississippi River. It flowed into the various river terminals up and down the river. It went down the Mississippi River and was loaded into larger ships in New Orleans and off to Eastern Europe it went.

We have a wonderful environmental story to tell as well. One 15-tow barge is the equivalent to approximately 1,000 trucks and approximately 260 railcars. Every time there’s a 15-tow barge down the river that means there’s not 1,100 trucks on our urban highway system. And there aren’t 260 rail cars on the rail roads, and we know rail is now pretty congested lately. It’s a congestion relief measure as well.

MP: As you leave, what should be printed on the coffee mugs?

LJ: “We’re getting better every day.”